Wednesday, 23 January 2013


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Spy Bases: 9 Secretive HQs of the World’s Intelligence Agencies
By Robert Beckhusen,
Wired, 22 January 2013.

Architecture is a language, one used by institutions to say something about themselves.

The same basic principle is true for the world's spy agencies. All show their secrecy in their buildings, while some may appear starkly utilitarian, and some may even be frightening and alienating. But they also have their quirks and differences, whether it be an isolated complex hidden by trees, in a location that's never been officially disclosed, or a prominent complex built by superstar architects and put on prominent display in the middle of a capital city.

From Virginia to Berlin to Moscow, here are nine of them.

1. United States: Central Intelligence Agency

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If John Brennan becomes the next CIA director - a likely event - he'll be working from inside a complex that could blend into a business park anywhere in America. But this park contains the headquarters of America's foreign intelligence agency.

Protected from prying eyes by a wooded belt in suburban Langley, Virginia, just northwest of Washington, D.C., the complex is actually two sets of buildings connected to a central core, with each set built at different times. The first half of the building and designed by New York architecture firm Harrison and Abramovitz - who had a role in designing the United Nations headquarters - dates back to 1963. It's a sign of its times, and built from sterile pre-fabricated concrete. Though the Headquarters Auditorium (see top image), also known as "The Bubble" took its cue from post-war futurism. But by the 1980s, the agency was running out of space. Today, the complex is much larger, with an added west wing of two glass office towers, designed by Detroit architects Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in the 1980s.

The CIA also has a penchant for art and assorted knick-knacks. The agency has a chunk of the Berlin Wall on display, and an A-12 Oxcart spy plane. There's a museum inside the building with all sorts of weird memorabilia inside, from a robotic fish to a Cold War-era mini-submarine (seen above). Outside the cafeteria on the grounds of the headquarters' new wing is the copper sculpture Kryptos, containing 869 encrypted characters on four plates. The final plate, with its 97 characters, is still unbroken. The cafeteria is remarkably pleasant and airy for a government building, actually, with enormous windows and green views. (The food, however, is not quite as pleasing.)

2. United States: National Security Agency

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There are clear views of the National Security Agency's headquarters off the Patuxent Freeway, just skirting Fort Meade, Maryland, about 15 miles southwest of Baltimore. But we wouldn't advise getting any closer, as the NSA is the highly secretive agency responsible for the U.S. government's code breaking and collecting communications from around the world. The NSA's headquarters also fits the part, rising blank and expressionless above a desert of parking lots. Completed in 1986, it resembles a collection of stubby, black, reflective monoliths like from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And according to the Centre for Land Use Interpretation, the complex has an estimated 10 acres of underground space.

But like the CIA during the Cold War, the NSA in recent years has outgrown its own building. Fort Meade altogether has grown extremely rapidly as defense agencies relocate there and the NSA boosts its Cyber Command headquarters. Defense and government contractors now have offices surrounding the place, and contract and government jobs have surged, largely due to growth at the base more generally, and partly because of growth at the NSA. The Baltimore Business Journal reported that the base is expected to add an eye-popping 42,500 jobs by the end of the decade. The Defense Department even paved over part of the base's golf course for the headquarters of the Defense Media Activity organization, the Pentagon's media wing. Hopefully the Pentagon and the NSA will include a lot more parking.

3. United Kingdom: Secret Intelligence Service

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Photo: Ďuncan/Flickr

There's perhaps no spy headquarters more recognizable than the SIS Building, headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. It's not only smack-dab in the middle of London, but has been featured in six James Bond movies, and blown up in two of them. Designed by architect Terry Farrell, the structure has been compared to a cross between a Babylonian ziggurat and a power plant. And it's built like a veritable fortress, capable of withstanding bomb attacks. There are also reportedly extensive underground areas.

It's also put its defenses to use. In September 2000, militants suspected to be from the Real Irish Republican Army - a splinter faction of the Irish paramilitary group - fired a rocket-propelled grenade round at the building's eighth floor, causing no injuries. In a demonstration of just how heavily armoured the building is, the rocket reportedly bounced off a glass window.

4. Russia: Federal Security Service

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The Lubyanka building - the yellow, neo-Baroque former headquarters of Russia's spies - is still the most recognizable symbol of Russian secrecy, even if the bulk of their office space has moved elsewhere. Dating to 1897, the building once housed an insurance company before becoming the headquarters for the feared Soviet spy agency KGB. It was remodelled by Stalin. (The basement contained a KGB prison.) The building was then transferred to the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), after the collapse of the USSR.

According to cyber security analyst Jeffrey Carr's book Inside Cyberware: Mapping the Cyber Underworld, the building today houses the FSB's Communications Security Centre, which oversees and encrypts Russian government computer security systems; and the Centre for Licensing, Certification, and Protection of State Secrets, which handles export licenses for cryptographic and surveillance technology. Twin suicide bombing attacks in 2010 also came close to the building - one of the blasts exploded at the nearby Lubyanka metro station.

5. Afghanistan: National Directorate of Security

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The aftermath of a Jan. 16, 2013 suicide attack against the National Directorate of Security.

There's a reason why Afghanistan's domestic spy agency (NDS) is headquartered at an armoured compound that is "big...and very, very sensitive, with a very high-security installation and system," as one agency official phrased it to the Daily Times. As U.S. troops withdraw from the country, the agency is expected to play a great role against the Taliban. It's also increasingly come under attack. On Wednesday, the headquarters compound in central Kabul was assaulted by a suicide bomber in a minivan, who detonated himself and his vehicle at the front gate. The Wall Street Journal's Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhil reported the blast was followed by a team of armed men who "then tried to assault the compound, but were shot dead by security forces." At least one guard was reportedly killed, and injuries are said by news outlets to number at least 33 people.

Tucked inside a high-security zone in Kabul near several embassies, the Afghan interior ministry and the national police headquarters, it's mixed in with a number of street-level shops, some wrecked by the blast. Wednesday's assault was also not the first time the NDS facilities and agents have come under attack. Agents have been targeted by the Taliban and killed. And in December, the agency's director was put into the hospital after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a guesthouse while the director was there greeting visitors.

6. Israel: Mossad

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The Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, known around the world as Mossad, is one of the most difficult spy agencies to locate. In Israel, it's a closely guarded state secret, and attempts by amateur sleuths on the internet have frequently misidentified its headquarters. But there are some indications its location has been figured out. An apparent former Mossad agent claimed to have revealed its location in at a highway intersection called Glilot Junction in 1987. In journalist Patrick Tyler's 2012 book Fortress Israel, he located Mossad's headquarters as a "partially hidden campus of low-slung office buildings sandwiched between the Glilot highway junction, a Cineplex, and a shopping centre." The buildings seen above appear to fit the location and description, and the building at top is indeed a Cineplex, but it's not for certain whether it's really Mossad.

7. Germany: Federal Intelligence Service

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Germany's chief spy agency, which in German goes by the name Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), is proud of its spiffy new headquarters. ABC has reported that it's "set to be one of the most technologically sophisticated buildings in the world" once it opens in 2014. Located within walking distance of the Reichstag building in Berlin and on the site of a former East German soccer stadium, the BND has even gone online to show off of its facades of "natural stone, render, fair-faced concrete, brick or metal." It has room for 4,000 employees, and has weird blob art. The agency is also touting its architect, Jan Kleihues, the son of famous architect Josef Paul Kleihaus, who was known for museums in Germany and Chicago.

But the design is also perhaps more open than the Germans would like. In July 2011, Munich news magazine Focus reported that the building's blueprints were stolen from the construction site. According to Focus, the blueprints contained "the exact function of every single room, the thickness of each wall, the exact position of every toilet and every emergency exit and every security checkpoint." The theft hasn't ended Berlin's plans. However, it was reported to have forced an estimated $1.8 billion interior redesign.

8. France: Directorate-General for External Security

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This walled compound doesn't stand out - because it's not supposed to. It would be an ordinary and undistinguished complex of buildings, that is, if you ignore the high walls topped with spikes and a tall sensor tower. Located on the eastern edge of the Paris city limits is the headquarters for the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), the agency responsible for France's overseas intelligence works. Its headquarters is also nicknamed "the swimming pool" for its proximity to a facility used by the French Swimming Federation, and Google Maps has even blurred its image in satellite photographs.

9. China: Ministry of State Security

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Photo: Vmenkov/Wikimedia

The building seen above is not the main headquarters for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), but a regional office in China's central Hubei Province. The official headquarters is a little harder to spot. Attempts to track it down have led to frequent - but mistaken - associations with the Ministry of Public Security: the giant Borg-like structure in downtown Beijing which houses China's national police command. A closer bet for the main MSS offices is a low-key compound in Beijing's northwest.

The MSS is also different from many Western intelligence agencies because it handles both foreign and domestic intelligence, instead of splitting them up like the CIA and FBI. Hence the reason why it has regional offices inside China, in addition to carrying out Chinese espionage overseas. The Hubei office also sends something of a statement, with its imposing columns, wedding cake facade, sensor dishes and observation perch. Another photo shows what appears to be a police officer on duty, in case anyone gets the wrong idea and wanders a little too closely.

Top image: CIA Auditorium

[Source: Wired. Edited.]

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